Lost treasures: the magic of books discovered after their author’s deaths

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Sarah Shaffi
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Imagine finding a novel down the back of the sofa…

The feeling of discovering something long forgotten can be thrilling, be it an old school project, a song you haven’t listened to in years, or a piece of clothing that you loved.

But as exhilarating as that can be, just think how exciting it would be to stumble upon an unpublished novel or short story by a great author.

It’s not as rare an event as you might think: in recent years, new novels and stories by some of the world’s best-known writers have been unexpectedly discovered. Just this month, Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom – a previously unknown short story, written by Sylvia Plath when she was just 20 years old – was published for the first time by Faber. And there are plenty of other novels and stories that have been unearthed after their author passed away.

Here are five authors who had work found and published after their death - and one who was still alive when a manuscript she didn’t realise still existed was discovered.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom

Well-known for her poetry, Plath’s only published novel during her lifetime was the groundbreaking The Bell Jar.

This year Faber published Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, which Plath wrote in 1952 as an assignment when she was a third-year student at Smith College in Massachusetts.

She submitted the story to Mademoiselle magazine, but it was rejected. Two years later she revised it, changing the title to Marcia Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom to mask the identity of her high school friend Mary Ventura, whose name she had borrowed. She also made the story less sinister and shortened it.

The version published by Faber this year was Plath’s first, using the original title.

Faber & Faber, £3.50

Pure Juliet and The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is a beloved British classic, parodying rural melodramas and giving us a loveable heroine in Flora Poste. Published in 1932 it still feels fresh and funny today, and is Gibbons’ best-known novel, although she published many in her career.

In 2014, 25 years after Gibbons’ death, her family discovered her book Pure Juliet, which was published for the first time in 2016. This was followed later in the same year by the first publication of The Yellow Houses, a novel written by Gibbons in the Seventies.

Both Pure Juliet and The Yellow Houses feature quirky heroines like Flora Poste. The former follows Juliet Slater, who spends hours in her room with incomprehensible maths textbooks, her mind drifting on strange seas of thought. In the latter, Mary Davis runs away from home at 17 to find a husband and children. She becomes engaged a few months later, but fate may have something different in store for her.

Vintage Classics, £8.99 each

The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson

Dickinson was a legendary recluse, and only had a few poems published in her lifetime, even though she wrote thousands.

After her death in 1886, her younger sister Lavinia discovered her cache of poems. Although Dickinson had left instructions for her correspondence to be destroyed, she had made no such requests regarding her poetry.

The first volume of Dickinson’s poetry was published in 1890 by Mabel Loomis Todd and TW Higginson, who edited the works so that much of Dickinson’s distinctive style – her unconventional punctuation and use of capitalisation – was lost.

In 1955, the first scholarly, virtually unedited collection of her poetry became available for the first time when Thomas H Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson. There have been a number of versions of this collection published since.

Faber & Faber, £20

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Austen published four novels in her lifetime, and wrote two more which were published in 1818, the year after her death.

In Northanger Abbey we meet Catherine Morland, a naïve young girl with a very active imagination and a love of sensational novels. She attempts to infiltrate Bath’s fashionable social scene while staying at nearby Northanger Abbey, and her preconceptions have embarrassing and entertaining consequences.

Persuasion follows Anne Elliot, who bowed to family pressure not to marry the man she loved, Captain Wentworth. However, she later finds that he has come back into her social circle. It was Austen’s final novel.

Vintage Classics, £7.99 each

The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Much of the glitz, glamour and tragedy that suffuses Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is evident in The Last Tycoon, the author’s final novel.

The book’s tragic hero is Stahr, a vulnerable cynic who rises to power in a Hollywood dominated by business, alcohol and promiscuity.

The Last Tycoon was unfinished when Fitzgerald died in 1940. His friend Edmund Wilson collected his notes and edited the manuscript for publication, and the novel was first published in 1941. Since then, it has been adapted for stage and screen, with Amazon Studios producing a series based on the book in 2017.

Penguin Classics, £14.99

And one forgotten by the author but discovered during her lifetime: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Until three years ago, Harper Lee had only published one novel, 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Almost 60 years later after its original publication, it’s still one of the best-known works of American literature and is read and studied around the world.

But in 2015, it was announced that Lee would be publishing her second novel. Go Set a Watchman features an adult version of Scout Finch, the protagonist of To Kill A Mockingbird - and although it was billed as a sequel, it was actually written before Lee’s most famous novel.

Lee completed Go Set a Watchman in the mid-Fifties, but was unaware it had survived. It was found by her lawyer, who initially dismissed it as a copy of the manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird before she looked closely at it.

Go Set a Watchman was published in the summer of 2015, just seven months before Lee died at the age of 89.

Cornerstone, £8.99

Images: Provided by publishers


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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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